N.C. companies join to bring Internet to all

A new agreement between North Carolina officials and the state's three major

communications companies aims to bring high-speed Internet access to the

entire state by 2002.

BellSouth, Sprint and GTE have agreed to work with Internet service providers,

telephone cooperatives, the state government, and others in the industry

in order to reach the goal.

Driving the agreement is the idea that Internet access is crucial to decreasing

the economic disparity between rural and urban areas.

"Affordable, high-speed Internet access is a key competitive factor for

economic development and quality of life in the New Economy of the global

marketplace," the agreement's preamble reads. "In the Digital Age, universal

connectivity at affordable prices is a necessity for business transactions,

education and training, health care, government services and the democratic

process."

Melinda Pierson, the Department of Commerce's public information officer,

said that although the agreement was struck several weeks ago, the details

of how the goal will be reached have not been finished. A nonprofit board

will be established to work out how to reach the goal. That board will include

representatives from the three companies and state and local government

officials.

Pierson said that in most areas the companies will pay to build the high-speed

network, but in areas that the companies would lose money, the state would

provide tax incentives or low-interest loans.

The agreement also spelled out six other goals, which the board will implement:

* Provide dial-up access from every phone exchange within one year.

* Establish two pilot Telework Centers in the poorest areas of the state.

The centers, to be established within the next 18 months, will provide computers

and Internet access to residents.

* Provide more residents with computers and Internet devices and subscriptions

throughout the state.

* Provide information regularly to citizens about the availability and future

of telecommunications and Internet services.

* Promote development of electronic government applications.

* Employ "open technology approaches" to encourage potential Internet providers

to provide access without bias.

The agreement began from a recommendation in the Rural Prosperity Task Force

report, presented to Gov. Jim Hunt earlier this year. However, the companies

wanted to approach the issue in another manner, and the agreement was made

with the head of the task force, Erskine Bowles, also the former White House

chief of staff.

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